How Nishit Saran’s Lurkings, a posthumous compilation of his writings, offered a new vocabulary for queer experiences
(This piece was first published on firstpost.com, as part of my fortnightly column ‘The Queer Bookshelf’.)
I am writing this piece in the common room of a backpackers’ hostel in Kolkata. Around me, people are swapping travel tales and making plans to go shopping. Some have just woken up for breakfast, others are already enquiring about lunch options at the welcome desk. I feel disconnected from all the buzz, lost as I am in the memory of someone I never knew while he was alive: gay rights activist, filmmaker and writer Nishit Saran who passed away in 2002 at the age of 25.
The book I am holding close to my chest is called Lurkings — a collection of the articles he wrote for newspapers, magazines and digital portals, compiled posthumously and published in 2008, by his parents Minna and Raj, who set up the Nishit Saran Foundation after they lost their beloved son in a car accident. These writings are an excellent introduction to what Saran stood for. They make me tear up as I think of how beautiful, compassionate and brave he was; I would have liked to know him, be friends with him.
My earliest introduction to Saran’s work was an article titled ‘Why My Bedroom Habits Are Your Business: Against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code’. I came across it four years ago when I went to the School of Environment and Architecture in Mumbai to watch Mandeep Raikhy’s play Queen Size. The performance drew inspiration from Saran’s article, and was a choreographic exploration of intimacy between two men. I would call it the most memorable theatre experience I have ever had.
My initial discomfort was replaced with exhilaration. I let down my guard, stopped trying to figure out who was watching me watch the play, and allowed myself to relish every moment. I felt naked because the play depicted the tenderness I wanted to experience but was afraid of. Saran’s article, and video excerpts from Raikhy’s play, are available online and they speak for themselves so I will refrain from further commentary. What I do want to say is that these men made me feel seen, and helped me embrace my desire, and feel whole. I am incredibly grateful.
It was not until last year that I met Raikhy again at a dance symposium. I recalled how much Queen Size had meant to me, and how I have grown in my own queer journey since then. Our conversation veered towards Saran, and I was surprised to learn that Raikhy and Saran were partners when the latter met with the fatal accident. It was an emotional moment. I felt the loss of someone I had never met, so I wanted to know more about Saran. That’s when Raikhy gifted me a copy of Lurkings. It is a special book, and I hope this column gives you a flavour of it.
In the article titled ‘Love in a gay time: Some amorous resolutions for the new millennium’, Saran writes, “If the dream of any gay movement is a world where we all are free to love, do we not have the responsibility to examine what we love, and why we love it, when we love someone of the same sex? A difficult project and, at the moment, a solitary one: in the face of a love that dare not speak its name, we must all, each one of us, following (Walt) Whitman, speak and write and sing a song of ourselves.”
As queer people, we are often so occupied in defending ourselves against cis-hetero-patriarchy that a lot of our time is spent in tending to our wounds. This drains our energy, and leaves us little room for creative renewal. We begin to construct our identity primarily through the language of resistance instead of being in an open relationship with ourselves, and splashing around in the pool of self-discovery. We forget that our personhood is not static. It changes as we move through the world, and the world moves through us.
Of course, we could argue that our survival depends on vigilance because assaults come unannounced but we also need to devote more time to learning about ourselves, and examining the motivations that govern our choices. It would be unfortunate to embody a politics of default rather than a politics of thoughtfulness. If we expect cis-het people to challenge their belief systems, and accept other ways of being, it would be a travesty for us to not walk our own talk.
In the same article, Saran says, “…let us ask ourselves, as gay men, why we want big biceps, hairy chests, and fair skins, and why we would ‘never’ sleep with drag queens — or, for that matter, why drag queens would ‘never’ sleep with each other since they are ‘sisters’? How far is this from self-loathing? At the other extreme, let us ask ourselves why we want to get married and have a big house with a dog and maybe even a few children.”
Regardless of whether or not we agree, Saran raises important questions here. Queer spaces can be as toxic as cis-het spaces when they enforce normative ideas of masculinity and femininity. For example, it is not uncommon to come across gay men on hook-up apps stating their preference for ‘straight-acting’ and ‘not girlish’ partners. Is this agency or misogyny? If we can choose to have our coffee with skimmed milk, almond milk, soy milk, or no milk, what is so wrong about specifying the kind of body we want? Well, is ordering food on Swiggy the same as interacting with a human being on Grindr? Let us think about this.
Saran explores the politics of queer encounters in another article titled ‘What the taxi driver taught me: Some lessons on love from working class men’. He is interested in what is called ‘situational homosexuality’, the idea that desire is shaped by circumstance rather than identity. This idea destabilises our rigidly defined notions of sexual orientation as an unchanging essence. Moreover, it makes possible an unlikely intimacy between strangers from disparate social backgrounds. In a society where people are killed for transgressing caste norms, situational homosexuality is worth studying.
Saran writes, “Folk wisdom in the rich urban gay community: if you urgently need it — and don’t want to pay for it — go hail yourself a cab. Now it can’t be that all Delhi taxi drivers belong to some secret gay society. Rather, they must simply have a higher incidence of what is often called ‘situational homosexuality’. Late nights, away from home, privacy…the same factors that bestow upon truck drivers their own widespread fame for homosexual encounters.”
What I liked about this article is the fact that Saran is not overtly celebratory. He prefers to look at things carefully, and assess what they mean, instead of making grand statements. When a rich gay man and a taxi driver have a sexual encounter, what expectations of masculinity and femininity, activity and passivity, are coded in that exchange? Is the taxi driver by default a top, and the rich gay man by default a bottom? How much flexibility is possible within this situational partnership? Do both partners get to decide the terms on which these roles are inscribed on those bodies? What does context mean, and how is it expressed or withheld?
Here is Saran’s take on the matter: “Situational homosexuality forces one to rethink the mainstream model of sexuality in general. It argues against the notion that ‘most people are straight, some gay, and a rare minority bisexual’ and points instead to a ‘polymorphous perversity’ wherein sexuality is not a matter of essence or identity, but one of fluidity and contingency…it is a theory that anyone, given context and connection, can enjoy sleeping with anyone…Why, if we are all polymorphously perverse, do these labels exist? Whose power do they serve?”
These questions are rarely asked in those activist and academic settings that refuse to honour fluidity, and are more invested in theoretical frameworks than in the diverse truths of desiring bodies. However, it is difficult to imagine how organising for human rights might happen if we do not build communities and campaign on the basis of shared identities. Queer people who are marginalised within their families need to seek support elsewhere, and policy changes are difficult to push for without mobilising opinion on a large scale. If queer individuals advocate for themselves but there are no pressure groups, is it possible to achieve anything substantial?
I recommend reading Saran’s article, ‘There were no homosexuals before 1868’, which is also part of Lurkings. It urges us to think about the meanings we attach to homosexual acts and homosexual identities. What do we think of men who explore oral or anal sex with other men but do not identify themselves as gay? Do we despise them for wanting to pass as straight, and reap the benefits of being heterosexual in a heteronormative world? Are we open to the idea that it might be alright to not form an identity around who we desire, and what we do with them in private? Do we think of them as people struggling with internalised homonegativity?
“One of the prices that Western gay movements have had to pay for their identity politics is the complete disappearance of situational homosexuality, and its replacement with identity paranoia (Does this make me gay?) and the consequent homophobic backlash…We must continue to critically engage with situational homosexuality — not to bring all these ‘would-be homosexuals’ back ‘into the fold’, but to constantly remind ourselves that this idea of the fold — which we, rightfully, so care about — is precisely what, in the end, must go.”
What would the queer movement in India look like if we gave up identity politics? What might we gain, and what might we lose? Are the stakes fundamentally different for people who choose to adopt a public identity based on a non-normative sexual orientation, and those who are interested in keeping things behind closed doors? Saran was writing at a time when the Supreme Court of India had not read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. When homosexual relationships have been decriminalised, what keeps men who enjoy situational homosexuality from committing to a gay or queer identity? Why do we insist on coming out as an act of truth?
Saran says, “Men have been having sex with men since the dawn of civilisation, and the project of uncovering queer personalities in world history has been an important one. Gay people have taken pride in the fact that history is littered with people who loved the way they did, and this fact has gradually filtered to the mainstream culture. So much so that scarcely anyone any more is shocked by the revelation that yet another famous historical figure was gay — Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Socrates, Babur, Alexander the Great…Now we all know: gay people have existed since time immemorial.”
Did these historical figures identify as gay? No. Does non-identification mean that they were ashamed of their sexuality? I would not jump to that conclusion. Did they use terms of self-identification that were equivalents of ‘gay’ in their own languages? I do not know. According to Saran, it was on 6 May 1868 that the German word homosexualitat was first used in a private letter from Karoly Maria Kertbeny to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. The word was first published — again by Kertbeny — in 1869, and was translated into ‘homosexuality’ some 20 years later in England.
Vocabulary changes over time. Five years ago, I did not know the word ‘cis-het’. Five years later, I might know words that have not come into being as of today. Our language evolves in relation to our awareness, our focus, our collective need as human beings to name what we wish to talk about. A book like this helps us keep track of that evolution, so I salute Saran’s parents who had the vision to put this together and make it accessible. They are role models for Indian parents who are still struggling to accept their queer children as they are.